The Moralist: A Psychological Crime Thriller (Excerpt)

Over the next few hours, Nate discovered a number of unexpected realities that followed reporting your child as missing. Firstly, you did not have to wait twenty-four hours to file the report. Of course not, he thought when the clerk at the police station had confirmed this. The police would want to know immediately if someone, especially a child, was potentially in danger. Secondly, he discovered that it’s not all that different from losing an important object or document. Once you notice it’s missing, you fall into a sort of madness. If a receipt that you desperately need for a refund is not in the file in which you keep these things, you wonder where you should look next. But of course, it must still be there. You haven’t taken it out. And so you look in the same place over and over again, even though there is no way you could have missed it.

Then you feel overwhelmed by the number of places it could be. That feeling is compounded by the possibility that it was stolen or thrown away. But you quickly realise there are not many likely locations, and if you start there you’ll find it relatively quickly. Relatively quickly, you discover it’s not in any of those places, and then you truly start questioning your sanity. You look everywhere, choosing to ignore the laws of reason and physics in your quest to find it. You search through the trash, through cupboards, in nooks and crannies, and even check the fridge. You look inside a first-aid kit you haven’t unzipped in years. Not only do you look in these most improbable of places, but once you’ve exhausted all those options, you look again.

Eventually, you are questioning not just your ability to locate something, but also whether you’ve lost a block of your memory as well. Maybe you gave it to someone, or hid it somewhere for some reason that you simply cannot remember. Maybe you did something perfectly logical with it and have somehow forgotten about it. You become unsure of your five main senses; your compulsion to look in places where it can’t possibly be makes you question your sanity; you completely lose trust in your memory. If you’re unfortunate enough never to locate it, you find yourself glancing in places where it might turn up, even once you no longer need it. Even if it is useless at this point.

And, as Nate discovered, that’s what happens when your son goes missing. You wonder if he hasn’t walked in while you weren’t concentrating. You look in his room and the bathroom to make sure. You check if he’s hiding in the cupboard. You go back to your wife who looks at you with genuine hope, as if she too believes he might simply have forgotten to turn off invisibility mode when he came home at the usual time.

Once you’re certain he is nowhere in the house, you begin phoning friends and relatives whom he might have gone to visit. Maybe he just lost track of the time. You call Brett’s house again, thinking that Brett may have lied or been mistaken, and this time you tell him how worried you are so that under no circumstances would he consider keeping Amory’s presence a secret any longer. Once you’ve called everyone you can think of, you go to the beginning of the list again, to ask if he hasn’t maybe come to visit since you last called. Yes, it is a bit late to turn up unannounced at someone’s home, but you never know. This time, you implore them to contact you immediately if he does turn up. You keep one of your phones free so that it’s impossible you’ll miss the call to say he’s turned up. If you should miss it, you may never get that call again. You keep that phone in your hand so that you’ll feel it vibrate as well as hear its ring, and check the screen and call history over and over again as well.

You begin to question whether there’s not a perfectly good reason he hasn’t come home that he actually told you about and you just forgot. He could be on a school trip. But that doesn’t make sense because he was at Brett’s. He could have gone over to another friend, one you have not thought to call, and yes, it’s not like him to do so without telling you, but of course, he must have told you and you completely forgot. You start racking your brain for memories that don’t exist, but might come into existence if you think hard enough.

The insanity only gets worse when the police arrive. A female detective is assigned to the case and you berate yourself for wondering if you’d be better off with a man. She asks you for information on your son, and you describe him with details you never thought you knew. The exact colour of his tan at this stage of the summer. The stains on some of his teeth from antibiotics when he was little. How his brown hair is the colour of the earth in a flowerbed after a rainstorm, when it has had an hour or so to dry. His eyes are not just blue but the shade of the Dome of the Rock, specked with both blue and green, which looks like a solid colour at a distance. She asks for a photo and you remember that’s a thing that exists, and you scour your phone and Facebook page to find one that looks like he looks most of the time, not just on one occasion. You feel a little hamstrung by the fact that a photo has rendered any other information redundant and you have nothing left to contribute. Then you remember that you haven’t described the clothes he was wearing today. Once you’ve given a quick rundown of each item of his school uniform, down to the grey socks, you start searching through your photos for a shot of him in his uniform. It seems that this information could be the turning point in the search. When the detective tells you that you’ve given her enough details on Amory’s appearance, your heart sinks.

She asks for other information, such as where your son was last seen and by whom. You discuss with your wife who the last person to see him was, and you dig out his timetable so you can see who taught the day’s final lesson. And then your wife points out that you’ve already spoken to Brett several times and they left the school grounds together, so Brett is the last person to have seen him, and again you feel hamstrung.

Then comes the worst part. She asks you if you’ve noticed any changes in your son. Any behaviour that was out of character. Any recent medical conditions. Any problems in the family or with a boyfriend or girlfriend. You mention that you recently walked in on him kissing Brett, using the worst possible moment to out him to your wife, whose face drops at the realisation that both you and Amory kept this from her for a full week, but she pulls herself together because this isn’t about her. The detective asks if he’s been having problems at school, suffering from depression, engaging in self-harm, considering or even trying suicide. At this point you start to wonder if you really know your son. Could it be that he’s been suffering in some way and you missed it? Did he send out signals – cries for help – and you just weren’t listening? Have you failed your son and that’s why he’s missing?

She asks you if you can think of anybody who might want to harm or abduct him, and a horrible thought crosses your mind but you stuff it down because that’s impossible. You tell her you can’t think of anyone, and then she joins her team who are in the process of the insane search you’ve already been through.

They look through the house, in his bedroom, in the bathrooms, in the other bedrooms, in your office, under your desk, in the cupboards, in all the places you shouldn’t have looked but did anyway. You start to feel like you did not do a thorough enough job, and start following them around and checking that they haven’t missed anything. Once they’re done – and they finish far more quickly than you did – you want to ask them to be a little more thorough, but you’re hesitant to tell them because they know how to do their job and you don’t want them not to find him on account of your being annoying. Only then do you realise they have not been looking for him so much as any clues that might lead to him, and you wonder if your mind will ever work at full speed again.

The third thing you discover is that no one else cares as much as you and your wife do. At first, you think that the police will care because a child is missing, and a child is the most precious thing in the world. But then you realise that there are many children missing, and all of them are as important as your son to the police, and none of them are that important if you’re taking them all into account. You feel almost embarrassed about how much you care about this missing child and none of the others and for trying to get the police to care more about yours than about someone else’s.

Your friends commiserate, and of course they too care about your child more than those other anonymous missing children. But they can go on with their lives. They can sleep at night, relieved that this happened to someone else. They can sleep at night because it happened to someone else. Someone else who must have done something to deserve it. These things didn’t just happen, after all. In order to believe they have control, that the bad things will never happen to them, they have to feel a little less sympathy. They have to care a little less, so that they can feel contempt and anger at you for letting it happen.

Your son’s friend – especially your son’s boyfriend, if that’s what he is – might care as much as you do, but he’s not allowed to say so. He cannot appear gay, not to his parents at least, because Amory has mentioned that he’s not out to them. So he can be sad, but he cannot overdo it, and even in him you cannot find a peer.

The fourth thing you discover is that once the police have gathered all the information that they need (along with whatever else you could force them to know) and leave, you’re helpless. There’s no search in the woods, because there are no woods. There’s no search on the streets, because there’s a police presence throughout the suburb and beyond, and they’ve all been informed to look out for him. You’re not going to find him simply by driving around calling out his name. You have to do something, though, and so you do go driving around calling out his name, listening for the responses that never come. You hear crickets and birds and occasionally the groan of a homeless person trying to sleep on the side of the road – and you feel an unjustifiable anger at the homeless person being homeless in a suburb that’s meant to be perfect; a suburb that’s meant to be safe – all of which make you feel slightly more hopeful, because at least things survive out there, and that means that Amory might be surviving out there too, if he happens to be out there, which he is certainly not because there’s no reason he’d stay out on the streets rather than come home, but you never know.

The fifth thing you discover is that it’s all your fault.


Marcus, Joshua. The Moralist: A Psychological Crime Thriller (pp. 64-67). Kindle Edition.


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